Users explore alternatives to Internet Explorer (IT – 30th April 2010)

Microsoft hopes the latest version of its browser will win back market share, writes Adam Maguire.

The fact that Microsoft is airing primetime television advertisements to promote its Internet Explorer 8 web browser says more than bragging by its competitors ever could.

Years of security threats regarding Internet Explorer and innovation by more nimble rivals have given the iconic browser a bad reputation and shrinking market share, both of which Microsoft is now trying to reverse.

Just a few years ago this kind of push was unnecessary. As late as 2004 the blue “e” was a standard feature on almost all PC and Mac desktops. For many users it signified “the internet” as opposed to an application of any kind.

However, 2004 was also the year that Mozilla launched its alternative Firefox browser, rekindling competition that had not existed in the market for years.

“The browser is probably the most visible [Microsoft software] people use so it is at the forefront of the competition we’re facing,” says Ronnie Dockery, manager of Microsoft’s Windows client business in Ireland.

“Competition is a good thing and, like the operating system space, it’s a race; you have to be ahead of the game all the time.”

At the time of Firefox’s arrival, Internet Explorer – then on its sixth iteration – had more than 91 per cent of the browser market, according to analytics company Net Applications. Since then the application’s share has been on a near-constant downward trend, rising only briefly in 2007 on the back of the launch of Internet Explorer 7.

Internet Explorer 8 was launched last year into a very different climate to its predecessors; the brand now holds 61 per cent of users against Firefox’s 24 per cent.

This shift in customers has an impact beyond the application people use to access the internet. In many cases the browser can inform what search engine and web services the user frequents – the precise reason Google launched its Chrome browser in 2008.

Threatening to chip away even further at Internet Explorer’s lead is the recent introduction of the “browser ballot” screen, an EU-mandated menu that offers Windows users a choice of browsers when starting their machine for the first time.

This decision came on the back of a European Commission investigation which found that Internet Explorer had an unfair advantage as it came pre-installed on all Windows operating systems.

On the back of this development, rivals such as Firefox and Opera have recorded a rise in downloads and a further rise in market share.

However, Dockery says the offer of a choice to customers is not something Microsoft fears.

“The browser ballot was proposed by Microsoft to the EU and it gives people choice, which is a good thing,” he says. “I think people should by all means take a look at other browsers, but my sentiment and I think the sentiment of the market is that Internet Explorer is the most popular browser and that’s for a reason.”

However, the fact is that many people abandoned Internet Explorer over the years because they preferred the product offered by others.

Internet Explorer 6 was launched in 2001 and was kept as the standard-bearer for five years, compared to the standard two-year cycle for other releases. During this time Microsoft failed to adapt to new ideas such as tabbed browsing, only doing so when Internet Explorer 7 arrived in 2006.

Internet Explorer 6’s lifetime was also marked by a series of highprofile security and bug issues which the company was slow to fix, something many put down to complacency on Microsoft’s part.

Responding to this perception, security has become a core message in the push for Internet Explorer 8. The company has also been far more proactive with updates, pushing them through to users as part of the regular Windows update schedule.

Statistics suggest Microsoft’s claim of a more secure browser is not just clever marketing. One of the browser’s much-lauded safety features is the SmartScreen Filter, which checks addresses visited to see if they are harmful and warns the user if they are.

A survey by NSS Labs found that Internet Explorer 8 blocked 85 per cent of harmful sites tested compared to 29 per cent blocked by Firefox. The filter scores particularly well when blocking “socially engineered” attacks – where a fraudulent website tricks users into giving personal information or downloading a virus.

“Fundamentally it’s more secure and it’s proven to be more secure; getting a virus is not a nice thing to happen and we’re ahead of the game big time there,” says Dockery.

“If you’re the most popular, then you’re the most attacked, and that is something that other browsers are going to have to deal with now too.”

Dockery also suggests Firefox’s open-source nature may end up being a double-edged sword, as malicious code could disguise itself as an add-on and be installed by an unwitting user.

However, users of Internet Explorer’s rivals will be familiar with many of its other new features already. InPrivate, for example, is a feature that deletes all history and cookies after a browsing session, but it was first available with Google’s Chrome as “Incognito” mode.

“To be competitive we have to have the latest features in there and if the competition comes out with a neat feature we have to look to leverage that too,” says Dockery.

“It’s an evolution; we look at what customers want, we do research and we look at other browsers – and they look at us too.”

Arguably, however, Internet Explorer 8’s greatest competition does not come from Google and Mozilla but from within.

Despite being available to users for more than a year, Internet Explorer 8 only makes up a third of all Explorer installs in use, with 23 per cent of users still running version 7 and 34 per cent sticking with version 6. This is despite the best efforts of the company and even the German and French governments, which have advised their citizens to move away from the programme.

“The threat profile has changed and we’ve evolved with the latest version [of the browser],” says Dockery. “I always tell people they need to update to the latest version and that’s a message we need to get out there.”

This article appeared originally in The Irish Times on 30th April 2010.

Newspapers and the great online debate

The Times and Sunday Times in the UK has announced that it will charge for access to its website from June of this year, making users pay £1 for a day’s access or £2 for a week’s. This decision is no real surprise and has been anticipated for some time, due to the many comments made by Rupert Murdoch in recent months.

The question of how newspapers survive and thrive online is a dream come true to me – not that I know what the answer is. It blends perfectly my two favourite topics of media matters and technology and shows the struggle that occours when that happens.

As a journalist it’s also of vital importance, as print may become a less reliable way to make a living in the years ahead and so a viable alternative is needed.

The News Corp decision to charge is completely understandable – news gathering costs money and that can rarely be recouped from web advertising alone. Similarly giving content for free allows aggregators like Google to carry it at no expenses and benefit from the advertising it bundles with it.

So in Murdoch’s view, it’s not fair that Google makes money from his newspapers when he isn’t.

£2 (likely to be converted to €3 in an Irish context) for a week of access seems quite fair too, especially when compared to the cost of the printed version.

There are two huge hurdles that come with charging for online news, however.

The first is that the difference between 0c and 1c is psychologically huge – much larger than the leap between even €1 and €2. One of the first challenges News Corp will face is finding an effective way to get people on board – credit card details and all – in the first place.

Once there it will be much easier to take money from them on a rolling basis – after all, who will miss a couple of quid from their bank accounts every month? It’s much the same as Apple’s iTunes; 99c is not going to be missed by anyone with even a below average income but getting them to agree to the notion of paying for something in the first place is the tricky bit.

The second – and arguably bigger – issue for the company is the options available to its customers online. What may well happen once it goes behind a pay-wall is that readers go to The Guardian or UK Independent (where content is free at the moment) rather than pay up to continue reading The Times.

This is one of the main reasons why The Irish Times lifted its pay wall in 2008. It found that when people came online for Irish news they would rather go to The Irish Independent’s site – which was free to access – than pay for access to The Irish Times’.

Even if all other newspapers in the UK were to go pay-only online there would still be the slightly problem of the BBC, which Murdoch has been targeting in his most recent rants. The BBC will always offer its news for free online and lets face it, so will other companies.

So how do you compete with that? The only answer is to make the product worth paying for.

News Corp – and others going this route – need to ensure that they have something no-one else can offer and that cannot be replicated for free elsewhere. In other words the standard report of yesterday’s news and the recycled press release just won’t cut it any more.

What is required is better analysis, better comment, better angles and potentially a return to investigative journalism. This way people can still go elsewhere if they want free news, but it won’t nearly be as good.

This logic is the simple reason why the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times have been able to successfully charge for content for so long. They offer a focus on a niche topic in a way that no-one else can, so people who want that have to pay up.

In an Irish context that may mean covering all Irish news in a way that’s better than the rest because at the very least the companies that will be trying to do that will be few and far between anyway.

For example IN&M’s local/regional newspaper group are starting to charge for online content while The Irish Times recently replaced its ‘Today’s paper’ section with a premium ePaper version, though as IrishTimes.com editor Hugh Linehan points out the content itself is still free to those who want it.

It’s only a matter of time before all newspapers and magazines have to re-think they way they are doing things, if they haven’t already. That does not mean all news will inevitably go behind a pay wall – it just means that the business model is changing and everything has to be considered in the years ahead to make ends meet.

All that said, many publishers will be happy to let Murdoch & Co. charge forward to see if there is treasure or a trap ahead.

This article originally appeared on the Business & Finance Tech Blog.